The July 11, 1938, issue of “LIFE” magazine
In our April issue, we told a story so amazing that you probably thought we were playing an April Fool’s gag on readers.
A respected Memphis attorney named Finis L. Bates (the grandfather, as it turned out, of Oscar-winning actress Kathy Bates) always claimed that he owned the mummified body of John Wilkes Booth — yes, the assassin of President Abraham Lincoln — and kept it in his Midtown garage. Now, you’ll have to read the entire story to understand what we are talking about, but in a nutshell it’s this:
Despite what you read in the history books, Booth was not killed when he was captured by Union troops on a Maryland farm. That was an imposter, or just an extremely unlucky guy. Booth, it seems, somehow escaped from a nationwide manhunt and lived the rest of his days in Texas and Oklahoma, working various menial jobs, mainly as a saloon keeper or house painter. When he finally died in the early 1900s, Finis Bates — who had done some legal work for him when he thought the murderer was just a tavern-keeper who called himself David St. Helen — brought the body home to Memphis. By this time, Bates had learned the secret identity of the old man, and he spent the rest of his days trying to convince the government to re-open the case.
They refused, and the mummy was reduced to a carnival sideshow attraction. After all, even if it weren’t the body of John Wilkes Booth, everybody wants to see a good mummy, right?
Well, that’s where LIFE magazine stepped in, with this eye-catching spread in their July 11, 1938, issue (above), just one of thousands of vintage magazines archived in the world-famous Lauderdale Library. The article retold the story I just told you (were you paying attention??), and added some further details. Among them: The Booth mummy apparently had a curse associated with it, because everyone who acquired it went bankrupt, or worse. Said LIFE: “Bates’ widow sold it for $1,000. It has changed hands many times since, always bringing bad luck to its owners. One went broke and was killed in a holdup. The present owner, Joseph B. Harkin, a former ‘Tattooed Man,’ lost a comfortable fortune since he bought the mummy for $5,000 in 1932. Since he joined Gould’s show [a carnival] last year, however, his fortunes have changed. The mummy is a big attraction.”
The magazine photos showed the mummy in various poses, and one image showed Harkin’s wife holding up X-rays that supposedly revealed physical characteristics (broken left leg, that sort of thing) that the mummy shared with Booth. Another image showed her peeling open a big flap in the mummy’s back, “so that customers can look inside.” It’s not clear what they saw if they chose to do so.
Yet another image showed a local sheriff taking fingerprints from the withered corpse. Ah, now we are getting somewhere! Nope, not according to LIFE: “This proves nothing because Booth’s fingerprints were never taken.”
Well, was there any other way to confirm — or disprove — the identity of this guy? Maybe there was, as revealed in letters to the editor published in LIFE’s next issue.
Dr. J. Howard Crum, a physician from New York City, had this to say about the LIFE pictures of the mummy: “After making a careful study of the features of the supposed mummy of John Wilkes Booth and comparing it with his photograph, I am prepared to say that the eyes, nose, chin, and cheek bones of the mummy are identical with those of the real Booth. ... I am a plastic surgeon who has operated upon many of the famous personalities of both stage and screen.”
Well, then, finally the case is solved! Or wait — is it?
The next letter to the editor came from Dr. W.F. Innes, an optometrist in Des Moines, Iowa, who had this to say: “Regarding the pictures of a mummy and John Wilkes Booth. Question: Is this Booth’s body? Answer: No.”
Innes explains (okay, stay with us here): “Booth’s head shows a mental-type individual: space across top of head is about 15-1/2 inches; high forehead, observation very keen; square chin; large ears; small lobes. Strictly a mental type — a reasoner and a dreamer.”
By comparison, he says, “Mummy: head, over the top, about 14 inches; very weak chin, executive-type nose; lobes of ears longer and set closer to head. This man was a positive vital type.”
What the heck is an “executive-type nose”??
One other reader asked what everyone else has been thinking ever since Finis Bates brought the mummy home: Will this mystery ever be solved? And LIFE’s answer: “Judging from the contradictory deductions made by an optometrist and plastic surgeon, No.”